Thursday, June 18, 2009

Who Wrote the Bible(’s first five books)

Richard Elliott Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible is a highly accessible explication of (his) version of the Documentary Hypothesis about the authorship of the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) or Torah. Given that the books include a description of the death of Moses, the claim—enforced by religious authority for centuries—that they were written by Moses is hardly sustainable, simply on internal evidence. Friedman’s outline of the history of investigations into who wrote the Books of Moses provides a notable history of intellectual courage and authoritative folly, as religious and state authorities punished those who, for example, suggested that Moses could not have authored a description of his own death.

Over the last century, many scholars came to accept that they were written by a series of authors – designated J, E, P and D – before being putting together during or after the Babylonian exile by the Redactor (in Friedman’s judgment, probably Ezra).
The German scholar who did the most to established the Documentary Hypothesis, Julius Wellhausen identified the various inferred authors (the Jahwist, the Elohim source, the Priestly source, the Deutronomist). He also argued that P wrote after the Babylonian Exile, a point Friedman argues against. Even though Friedman does not deal with the logical reality that, if a set of words appears in both A and B, either could be quoting the other (or they might both be quoting some third source) as well as he might, his argument is persuasive.

About Leviticus
My main interest is concerning the Levitical prohibitions on man-to-man sex, therefore in the Priestly source, since P is the identified author of almost all of Leviticus including the Holiness Code. If P had written after the Babylonian exile, then Zoroastrian influence is extremely likely. In the absence of evidence that the Redactor inserted Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13 into the Holiness Code, such influence is less likely.

All the Middle Eastern monotheisms—Zoroastrianism (technically dualist but the spirit of darkness is not worshipped), Judaism, Christianity and Islam—have anathematised sexual acts between males. The transfer between the last three is obvious—to the extent that Muhammad took Jewish and Christian commentary on Genesis 19 and gave it Scriptural authority.

(There is no support in the Gospels or Jewish Scripture that the central crime of Sodom was boy-boy sex: that was an interpolation of later commentary. Which makes Leviticus crucial, especially as St Paul’s term arsenokoitai seems to be an allusion to the language of the Greek version of the Torah.)

It would be nice to have evidence that the first of the Middle Eastern monotheisms had exported its anathematisation of same-sex acts (discussed by Plato in the Symposium) to the Jews. But persuasive evidence seems to be lacking.

There are four features of Friedman’s discussion I did find of interest on this matter. The first is that the Priestly source is almost certainly a Priest and is very concerned with rules, and rules that make priests important. The second is that the Priestly source does not portray God as merciful. This is a God of taboos, with priests as the authoritative enforcers of taboos, the definers of the Godly and the ungodly: very much what the Catholic Church (especially), Pentecostal and conservative evangelical Christianity are about on matters sexual. It is also precisely this form-driven rule-based intolerance that Christ denounces in Matthew 15 and Mark 7, reflecting a division that goes right back to the start of the Biblical tradition, since both J and E write of God’s mercy and forgiveness.

The third is that the Priestly source portrays God as transcendent. A transcendent One God is not sexual. Human are not “in God’s image” by being sexual, but by being procreative. Catholic doctrine—which bars all sex acts that are not open to the gift of life*—expresses this particularly clearly.

(* Of course, if the husband is sterile or the wife post-menopausal, none of their acts are so “open” in their nature [the crucial aspect: miraculous intervention by God is not part of the justification, since God could equally allow two men to engender a child], but such consistency would be far too confronting. This is a set of taboos being enforced, with the alleged underlying principle of sex-only-being-procreative being adjusted so as to be not “too big an ask” for straight married folk.)

Finally, the Priestly source is very much in favour of centralising worship of God in the city of Jerusalem and is probably writing at a time when refugees from the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel are flooding into Jerusalem. Given the same-sex oriented are only likely to achieve significant concentrations in cities, urban disorientation is likely to be a significant factor in encouraging anathematisation of same-sex acts: particularly if, like the Aaronid priesthood of Jerusalem or Muhammad, you are city-dwellers preaching to largely rural folk. Dissociating oneself from the confronting diversity of city life would be good preaching strategy. St Paul (who produces the only New Testament criticism of same-sex acts) seems to have mainly preached in cities, since that is where people were usefully concentrated and Christian believers could hide more easily.

The idea that the sin of Sodom—the ultimate expression of urban wickedness and its righteous punishment—was boy-boy sex arose during the period when Jews tended to be concentrated in the cities of the pagan Roman Empire. It gained further theological intensity during the prolonged economic boom in medieval Europe from about 1050 to about 1310: another period of increased urbanisation in a society still strongly rural.

Friedman himself is not concerned with how sex is dealt with, but it is a measure of the book that it is still useful on such matters. I found Friedman’s book to be highly readable and informative, bringing both textual scholarship and the history of Biblical Israel and Judah alive.

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